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Dear Anna,

I’ve just been appointed to a practice group leadership role. Can you give me some tips on leading my peers?

Being asked to lead your peers can be everything from a challenge that brings interest to your role to drinking from a poison challis. The title of David Maister’s book First Among Equals cleverly captures both the need to lead by example and that every professional demands to be treated equally.  Here are three things to give attention to when taking on a new peer leadership role. 

Go first

Take the initiative to make a start and set the pace that you would like others to follow. Asking others to do what you don’t do is just asking for trouble when leading smart, sceptical professionals.

Be ready to slow things down when asked why you didn’t consult with everyone. It’s only when professionals become interested in something that they want to be consulted. Until that point is reached, they will look on from the sidelines and politely ignore all opportunities to be involved.

To quote JFK: “Success has many fathers and failure is an orphan.”  Your individual proactiveness will make a difference. 

Engage their intellect

The approaches to leading professionals that work best all contain an element of intellectual stimulation. Connect what you need to happen with their interests to fire their grit – the combination of passion and perseverance identified in the clever studies of Angela Duckworth.

Structures with formal reporting lines such as in-house teams and clear accountabilities found in government roles provide guidelines that don’t exist for groups of professionals. Use intellectual stimulation in the form of areas of interest, markets to pursue, or client curiosity to create invisible structures that can substitute for formal authority. Acknowledge the effort when you see it rather than taking it for granted. 

Build an ecosystem

Use the internal specialists in your finance, business development and human resources functions to drive your plans. Be clear about the outcome and have high expectations about your requirements. It might be the first time you have led a particular type of project, but it’s unlikely to be their first. 

After the financial, client and people foundations are in place, you focus on technology and systems changes that require a broader group of stakeholders to work with.  Find yourself a confidant in another practice group or office who has had similar roles in the past. A safe place to talk through the challenges can make all the difference.

Seek regular, informal feedback to establish a pattern of exchanging ideas rather than hierarchical control. Being aware of the concerns and frustrations when they are small is better than working on hope and unconsciously creating resentment.  If all else fails, follow the golden rule and treat others the way you would like to be treated.